by Lorie Lewis Ham
We are SO very excited to be able to share with KRL readers not only a review of Amber Benson’s new urban fantasy novel How To Be Death, but also a wonderful interview with the absolutely charming and sweet Amber! We also have a copy of How To Be Death to give away–details at the end of this post. For those who don’t know, Amber played Tara in the best TV show ever (in my personal opinion) Buffy The Vampire Slayer!
How To Be Death by Amber Benson
I have to admit when Amber Benson’s new book showed up in the mail for me to review my first thought was “It’s Tara from Buffy!” and of course that meant I had to read the book. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that she had written fantasy novels.
While How To Be Death is the fourth in this series featuring the character Calliope Reaper-Jones, I was not at all lost not having read the other books. Amber does a great job of including enough back story so that it all makes sense, yet leaving enough out to make me want to go back and read the first three books. Calliope was an ordinary girl, who loved New York and shopping, was a little bit klutzy, and had the bad habit of sticking her foot in her mouth–she never wanted to take over the family business. However when her father was killed she had no choice. Now this family business is a bit different from some ordinary corporation because Calliope is now running Death Incorporated—in other words, she is now essentially the Grim Reaper!
Still not completely comfortable with her new role, Calliope is off to attend her first Death Dinner and All Hallows Eve Eve Party, hoping to make a good impression on the important people in Death Inc. and show them that she is indeed capable of handling the job. At her side is her Executive Assistant Jarvis, who is almost as much nanny to her as assistant. And also, her Hell Hound best friend Runt. She is doing okay until she runs into her ex love Daniel and it totally throws her into a tailspin.
To further complicate things, from midnight on Halloween until midnight the next night, all magic ceases and during that time a murder spree begins, with someone killing some of those who normally can’t be killed. It doesn’t help that the Ender of Death is personally out to get Calliope, and what better time than during those 24 hours. And as if that wasn’t enough complication, her father’s copy of How To Be Death: A Fully Annotated Guide, is stolen.
Wow, hard to know where to start here there is so much! While the book started a little slow, (probably because I was jumping into the latter part of a series) it didn’t take long until I was fully hooked! This book has absolutely everything all in one neat package! There’s of course the murder mystery, a very interesting detective, Gods and Goddesses, fantasy, romance, friendship and more—with most of the book being very fast paced and covering just a couple of days. Calliope, though she is officially Death, is funny, compassionate, tough and just really down to earth—just an ordinary girl in a very non-ordinary situation. I also adore Runt—who wouldn’t want a man’s best friend who can actually talk to you!
Amber left us on a cliffhanger so I can’t wait for the next and final book in the series to come out! If you love fantasy with a different sort of twist, great characters, and a healthy dose of mystery as well, check out How To Be Death, and like me go back and check out the rest of this series!
Interview With Amber Benson
Lorie: You have been actor, writer, producer, director and novelist—is there a certain one of those roles that is closest to your heart?
Amber: The characters that I feel the closet to are probably Tara on Buffy, and then in a film I did when I was 15 called King of the Hill I got to play an epileptic girl, which was really cool. I think those are my two favorite parts I’ve gotten to play as of right now, you never know what’s going to happen in the future. But writing and directing are wonderful too; it’s just a different hat. It’s hard to say what I love the best.
Lorie: How did you get into acting?
Amber: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and I was a hyper kid. My mom was always putting me in things trying to get me to go sleep at night. So she put me in tap dancing and ballet and jazz and I loved the dancing I just didn’t like the discipline–ballet is so intense and the girls their toes are bleeding because they’re on point shoes and I just didn’t know if that was for me.
But then they did the Nutcracker Suite one Christmas and I got to be a marshmallow. I got to roll out of this man that dressed like a woman with this giant hoop skirt and all of us kids would get under the skirt and he would lift it up and we would roll out and do a little dance and go off stage. And I realized that I loved being on stage. I didn’t love the dancing but I loved people clapping. And so my mom said well you like being on stage and they have this theatre program, why don’t we stick you in that and see what you come up with so that’s sort of how I ended up acting.
Lorie: How/when did you get into writing?
Amber: I’ve always written but it wasn’t until I met Chris Golden and he asked me to co write some Buffy comics that I said, hey I could do this prose writing thing. I’ve written screenplays and made little films and stuff but this was my first real prose sort of involvement and I wrote it and really loved it. I liked writing comic books and then he and I wrote a thing for the BBC called the Ghosts of Albion. Then we novelized that universe into two novels for Random House. And I said this is really fun. I’m really daunted by having to write all these words but I loved being sort of the God of my little world. I get to tell everyone what to do–get to boss them around.
Lorie: How did you come up with the idea for your Calliope Reaper Jones novels?
Amber: After I’d co written a couple of things with Chris Golden, I knew I wanted to try something on my own. Working with Chris was awesome–his family is like my East coast family…when I go to Boston I stay with them. And I feel like I was in Chris Golden University. I learned to write from Chris but I felt like it was time to do something on my own and I’ve always been interested in mythology–I loved Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods and I loved how he had brought old world mythology into the twenty first century and I thought it was a really interesting concept.
So I wanted to do something in that world and I thought I have sort of this weird fear of dying–what if I took this fear I have and I create a character who is sort of the antithesis of that. She is immortal and she doesn’t want any part of that world and so she’s like the anti me in a way. And I sort of created a universe where every religion coexisted and you didn’t just die and it was sort of a nicer way of thinking about what happens when you die. I like the idea that you go on and we aren’t just buried and that’s it. That was sort of how Callie came into being.
Lorie: How hard was it to get a book contract?
Amber: It’s funny I feel like I cheated. I took the 20 years of struggle I did in acting and I moved it over to publishing. So because I had been doing stuff with Chris, I had some contacts and had a literary agent and I wrote the first 10 chapters of the book and an outline for what I saw happening and we took it out to Ginger Buchanan at Ace/Roc at Penguin. She really liked it. And she said she didn’t want it as one book, let’s do it as three books. And I said alright I’ll take all the stuff I have in my head and sort of extend it over three books and that’s sort of how it came into being.
Lorie: But wait, this current book, How To Be Death, is the fourth book? What happened?
Amber: I was getting ready to turn in the third book and Ginger said we were sort of thinking maybe you should do two more and I said what? So I had to go back in and rewrite the ending. I had wanted to tie up all the loose ends that I had created in the first two books so I had to go in and untie some of those loose ends, which was a little unsettling.
Lorie: And there’s one more?
Amber: I’m writing number five as we speak. We’ll see if she lets me do what I want to do with number five. I may have to rewrite the ending on that one too who knows.
Lorie: Do you have any idea what you want to do after Calliope?
Amber: I do. I wrote a middle school book in between the first two Callie books called Among the Ghosts and I had so much fun writing it that I really want to do more young adult/middle grade stuff. So I’m actually working on a YA book right now. And then I have some other ideas for another series for adults. We’ll see what happens though
Lorie: So we have to ask some Buffy questions-how did you end up on Buffy?
Amber: It’s really funny. I knew Alyson Hannigan before I was on the show. We had mutual friends and we had hung out and stuff so when they called with the audition and I saw it was a friend of Willows I was like I should call Aly, and then I was like no I don’t want to bug her I’ll just go in and see what happens.
So I went in and auditioned and I met with Joss and Marty and it went really well. Then I was supposed to go visit my dad in sort of the Central Coast of California and I got in the car and I went out my dad’s and they called and said they want to see you–you need to come right back they want to see you in two hours. And I was I’m three hours away I can’t. And they said okay well they’re going to see more people and if they don’t find anybody then you’ll go back next week. They didn’t find any body and the rest is history.
It was only supposed to be a couple of episodes and the crew kept coming over and saying wow you guys have such good chemistry and I was like, what are you talking about? The crew was right. So Joss took us aside and said I just wanted to let you guys know that we’re sort of going to go in this direction, and we were okay. It was awesome.
Lorie: How has Buffy changed life?
Amber: Wow. I was kind of clueless. Allie tried to warn me and said it’s a game changer. She was like it’s a dedicated fan base and you’re going to be going to all these conventions and meeting people and I was like I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re crazy. She was not crazy, she was right. But I wouldn’t be writing these books right now if I hadn’t done Buffy because I wouldn’t have met Chris, I wouldn’t have started down that path–it’s really amazing where your life takes you. You don’t realize what’s happening—-you’re just like, I’m just living my life and you look back and you’re like wow all these decisions I made and all these things that happened to me totally impacted how I’m here in this part of my life now. It’s wonderful.
I’ve met so many amazing people, and the fans are truly gracious and kind and so dedicated to the show. They connected with it in a way that isn’t typical. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s really powerful. I think it was so well written and it really spoke to so many people and I think that’s Joss.
Lorie: What was it like working with Joss?
Amber: It was great. I mean he knows what he wants. He directed a number of the episodes and you knew it was going to be really great when he directed it. And he was like, we’re doing a musical—anybody else you would be like you are insane, but with him you’re like ‘Oh yeah we can totally do a musical. He knows what he’s doing.’ Yeah he’s great. He’s genius like.
Lorie: Are you doing any other singing? You have such a lovely voice.
Amber: I just was answering this in Houston at a book signing. They asked, are you going to cut an album and I was I don’t really play an instrument so I can’t really write songs but I do a lot of singing in the shower. I should record a shower album. I’ll do some standards in the shower. I love singing, I’ve always done it. Of course I grew up doing theatre and you have to be able to do singing and dancing, dancing I didn’t do so well. But the singing I love.
Lorie: This may be an impossible question to answer, but what is your favorite Buffy episode?
Amber: This is less impossible than you think just because I love love love the musical episode. I’m so proud of us. I can’t believe we all pulled it together. Allison doesn’t sing, Sarah doesn’t sing, and yet both of them were game for it. I mean they were talking like we’ll get you a singer Sarah you don’t even have to sing, and she was like no I want to do my own and I was really really proud of her doing her own thing. And she sounds great.
Lorie: I recently watched your film Chance that you did while on Buffy and loved it. How did Chance come about?
Amber: I’d been working on the show and I’d had my brain sucked out so I wasn’t’ doing a lot and I was starting to feel like I want to do something that’s a little more creative and crazy. So I just decided I was going to make this thing and it really wasn’t something that I was like ‘I’m gonna just give this to the world’, this was more like I want to learn how to do this because I don’t know what I’m doing.
I sort of scripted James (Marsters) and Andy Hallett (Lorne on Angel) in it and I think it turned out really well. I’m really proud of it. I think James is hysterical. He was so funny. I was like; really you’re just such a trouper. He came in and he’s just like you want me to wear high heels alright, you want me to do this, alright. He’s amazing. And he’s so funny and I think people forget that. They think of Spike being this all dark and sexy character but he was really funny on the show and he’s really really funny in Chance I think (see link at end of the article to Chance on YouTube)
Lorie: Tell us about your recent movie Drones?
Amber: That was something I just co-directed with Adam Busch. It’s on Showtime and it’s streaming on Netflix, etc. now so everyone can see it. I’m not in it. It’s an office comedy with aliens but Jonathan Woodward is who was in Buffy and Angel and Firefly. I think he’s one of the few people who was in every show of Joss’. He’s really funny. And Samm Levine from Freaks and Geeks is in it. It’s a lovely little movie. Kind of a weird quirky film that we shot in Baton Rouge LA for 14 days. I highly recommend everyone take a look at it.
Lorie: What else do you have coming up?
Amber: I just did some stuff on Ringer with Sarah–it was really fun to see her. I hadn’t seen her in awhile, and I look at her and she looks the same, it’s freaky. She looks exactly like she did when I first met her. She’s on top of her game, she’s great.
And I did some work on a film called Dust Up–a crazy cowboy apocalyptic crazy extravaganza movie I’m acting in where I play a mom. It’s funny the only thing I was worried about—there’s all this gun shooting and running around–but all I was worrying about was do I look like a mom. Do I look like I’m holding the kid right? I don’t have kids.
And I have some short films. Some friends said come out of your semi retirement and work with us so I did. One is sort of a dark comedy called Reverse Parthenogenesis and then I have another film that’s called Laura Keller – NB that’s going to be on ITV I think. Public TV. It’s kind of a Sci-Fi movie with women not being able to have kids and having to have a lottery to be able to have kids because of overpopulation. It’s really interesting and very prescient now with everybody worried about global warming and all this stuff. There could be a time when they’re limiting how many kids you can have because we don’t have enough food.
Lorie: Is there anything left you really want to do that you haven’t done? Maybe a special role?
Amber: I always wanted to be Joan of Ark but I think I’ve outgrown that–she was like 15 so I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Lorie: How do you balance everything?
Amber: It’s part of being a journeyman I think. You are out there kind of being a journeyman craftsman doing all this stuff. You know you’re not raking in the big bucks so you do a lot of stuff to pay your bills. There are a lot of films I look back on and go wow I know why I did that one, to pay my rent. But even those there was something about them that was interesting. But for me it’s mostly just things that excite me, things that I see or read and I’m like, oh I want to be a part of this. Sometimes I get paid and sometimes I don’t. So it’s a balance to do the jobs you don’t want to do to get paid so you can do the jobs you do want to do where you don’t get paid. I think everybody knows that these days. Everyone’s struggling to just keep their standard of living at a normal.
Lorie: What’s one thing that would surprise your fans to know?
Amber: I love doing dishes. It’s very cathartic. I used to have roommates and I would be, I’ll do the dishes if you take out the garbage—I hate taking out the garbage. But I love doing the dishes–there’s just something about putting your hands in soapy water and just losing yourself in an activity for like 30 or 40 minutes.
Lorie: Do you ever do conventions?
Amber: Not a ton but here and there. Whenever it’s somewhere interesting—when they’re like come to London, or come to Germany or come to Maine. I’m like, I’ve never been to Maine I’ll go to Maine. So yeah I do attend them occasionally and it’s always fun and I always meet really interesting people. Smart people you would never except to like Buffy. All these really bright people like Buffy and I think it’s a testament to Joss and how smart the show was.
Lorie: Let’s go back to your books again–say you were approached and someone wanted to make a TV show or movie out of your books—who would you want to play Calliope?
Amber: I love Zooey Deschanel. I think she has a really interesting look and she has that sort of quirky quality that I think Callie would have. So I would love to throw it her way. I’ve actually been taking meetings and people are interested. But I really want to stay involved in the project and of course, they don’t want you involved. We just want to get the rights we don’t want you involved.
Lorie: But you have experience in that too.
Amber: That’s what I think, but they look at me and [seem to be thinking] you’re the little actor girl you don’t know what to do and give me a little pat on the head and say oh you’re so cute you think you can do stuff. I can do stuff leave me alone. (laughs)
Lorie: Do you have a routine with your writing?
Amber: I try and treat it like a job and work every day. I usually take the weekends off but during the week I try and do it every day. I try and write 1000 to 1500 words a day. I have a writer’s group that I write with called the Shamers. We shame each other into writing and we all get together at coffee shops. We’re all working on different projects but we sit together and we work and invariably you know you’ve been on Twitter too long when everybody’s looking at you and going hmm you’re not writing your Tweeting. They keep you honest. And that’s been lovely to be a part of. Being a writer is a very solitary thing. I’m used to just sitting by myself and putting my headphones in and just being gone. So when you’re working with other people it makes it more fun.
Lorie: Any more signings coming up?
Saturday, March 10th 2012
San Diego Store
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, Ste 302
San Diego, CA 92111
March 24th, 2012
w/Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
3512 W. Magnolia Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91505
Wonder Con in Anaheim on March 16.
Lorie: Do you think Twitter has helped you promote your writing a lot?
Amber: Oh yeah social media has definitely made it possible to be a writer and to not have a lot of money behind you. When you’re working with a big publishing company, they have really big writers they’re dealing with and that takes up a lot of their time. Sort of midlisty people like me, they still do a lot of cool stuff for me, they set up all your tours and they’re really on top of stuff, but they need you to help them. You need to be on Twitter and Facebook and you need to be promoting yourself and get the word out and then they’ll augment that. It’s the wave of the future.
It’s more of an intimate connection with your fans. First of all, it’s cutting off that middle person or middle thing that like when you were younger and you read the Pop magazines and all that stuff to get close to your favorite stars. Now you go on Twitter and you get to see what they’re saying totally of their own volition, it’s not coming through a third party, nobody’s editing it it’s just them and that’s really interesting. Facebook is the same and YouTube–I think it’s changing how entertainment is given to the public. It’s great. I can make a little short film and put it up on my YouTube page….I can do something that fulfills me creatively and then I can get it out there and anybody can see it. And I can read the first chapter of my book and put it on YouTube and everyone can meet the cat Sir Richard Bitely. It’s just a way of making your audience feel connected to you. It’s not just some person on the television or in a book but it’s you as a human being and I like that.
Lorie: Anything else you want to share?
Amber: I hope people go out and find all the weird stuff that I’m working on and I hope it makes them laugh a little bit. That’s the point. Just take people out of their normal lives for a couple hours and take them somewhere crazy.
Check out Amber’s official blog, check out her YouTube channel and follow her on Twitter, check out the new Facebook page for her new movie, Laura Keller, and learn more about her movie (which she directed) Drones now available from Netflix and be sure and check out her fun movie with James Marsters called Chance.
To enter to win a copy of How To Be Death, simply email KRL at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Death”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 17, 2012. U.S. residents only.
If you love Buffy, you may also be interested in KRL’s interview with Debbie Holder who has written several Buffy novels.